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Better Writing Begins with the Right Tools

12 January 2018

From JSTOR Daily:

I have a theory that for writers, digital writing tools are just as influential as the mason’s choice of a particular compass or square.

Historian Lon Shelby wrote extensively about the building practices of the medieval masons behind the creation of such cathedrals as Chartres, iconic buildings that owe their creation and execution to the specific tools masons adopted for measurement and layout. “[U]ntil the history of their tools is adequately described,” Shelby writes, “the achievements of medieval masons cannot be properly evaluted from a technological point of view.” Shelby locates the geometry of these iconic buildings in the specific types of compass and square that masons had access to in the medieval era.

Is it really so different for current-day scribes? It’s not hard to goad writers into drawing virtual blood by asking them to expound on the relative merits of Ulysses and Bear, Markdown and rich text, or Microsoft Word vs Google Docs. And who isn’t a writer these days? From academics and students to corporate bloggers and analysts, there are few professionals who don’t spend at least some of their time cranking out paragraphs. Email alone ensures that most of us distribute more words per day than our grandparents might have sent forth in a year.

For all the time we spend cranking out words at a keyboard, however, we rarely stop to ask how all that keyboard time affects the way we write and communicate. It’s not just the keyboard that shapes our prose, of course; far more influential is the software in which we do our writing. That’s why it pays to think about what we want from our writing tools: not just as individual writers and communicators, but as readers and human beings with a stake in the ongoing evolution of our written culture.

The impact of our writing environment is on my mind because my writing process has just been transformed by Scrivener, an writing application I purchased several years ago but have only begun to properly use. I am a bit of a software junkie, so there’s nothing unusual about me trying out a new app as part of my endless quest for productivity perfection, or returning to an app I’ve tinkered with in order to take it for a more dedicated spin. I regularly cycle through new email clients, task managers, note-taking applications, data analysis tools, and image editors.

. . . .

If you’ve been using the same writing software for years and years, as I have, it’s easy to stop thinking about the impact your tools have on the day-to-day experience of writing. For the past decade, almost all my short-form writing has been drafted in Evernote, and for twenty-five years, all my long-form writing has taken place in Microsoft Word. I’m not giving up either of those tools, but spending the past month writing in Scrivener has reminded me that new tools enable new thoughts and new ways of working.

Because Scrivener makes it so easy to slice up and reorganize pieces of a document, it profoundly changes the process of writing and revision, and the balance between them.

. . . .

Matthew Kirchenbaum has written an entire book on the impact of word processing, the seeds of which appear in his article on how it transformed the work of John Updike:

Like many others [Updike] was at first captivated by the strange new device, declaring it “dazzling” more than once. Evidence of writers test driving their first word processor is a minor genre in their personal papers. One of the best known examples comes from Russell Banks when he was writing the novel that became Affliction: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE,” he wrote in all caps at the beginning of a document that is a kind of stream-of-consciousness exploration of its capabilities. “STRANGE EXPERIENCE, UNFAMILIAR MIXTURE OF SPEED AND SLOWDOWN.” A similar page by Salman Rushdie survives in his collection at Emory University. Stephen King, meanwhile, wrote a short story, “The Word Processor,” which was published in Playboy and stands as the first extended fictional treatment of the technology.

The kinds of praise that many writers, students, and writing teachers lavished on the emergent technology of word processing points to the very particular ways it changed the practice of writing. In an anecdotal assessment of her college students’ use of word processing in her English, Dawn Rodrigues writes that

I observed various ways in which the computer was affecting my students’ progress. First of all, the computer seemed to help reduce the students’ writing apprehension. Students who at the beginning of the semester wrote (in early journal entries) of being nervous about writing showed no anxiety at all as the course progressed. For instance, one student who couldn’t even think of an idea for a journal entry on the second day of class blossomed when he began writing on the computer. He explained in his journal that he wasn’t afraid to express himself because he knew that he could immediately delete any sentences which embarrassed him. Another student said that he liked writing with computers because he forgot to worry about what he was saying. He just enjoyed seeing the words appear.

. . . .

I’m no stranger to doing large-scale edits in Word; there was lots of big-picture rearranging involved in writing my dissertation, and later, in writing my series of ebooks. But it was a painful process, because Word (like most word processors and text editors) is set up as if the complete article (or essay, or report, or book) is the fundamental unit of work. Sure, you can move stuff around by cutting and pasting, but you have very limited options for keeping the overall structure of your work in mind as you do. Word is fundamentally a tool designed to facilitate the modest changes described by Collier.

Scrivener, on the other hand, is set up to facilitate what Dave and Russell refer to as “global revision.” It encourages writers to slice their work up into the smallest viable units: not just chapters or even sections, but individual scenes, quotes or arguments. (To write this article in Scrivener, I imported each of the quotes you read above as individual documents, so that I could pull them in and rearrange them at will.) When you look at your work through the constant lens of its component parts, it’s much easier to undertake ambitious restructuring—not just technically easier, but conceptually easier, because you can see the parts that make up the whole.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG still misses WordPerfect.

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34 Comments to “Better Writing Begins with the Right Tools”

  1. Me, too. Sigh.

  2. I miss my first computer, a Wang. It was designed for writing.

    But it’s sooooooo many years gone, I can’t remember any details about it. First sign of old age…

    • You’re not alone! I remember one feature I’ve seen nowhere else: the ability to extend a selection by typing the character at which you want the selection to end. For example, typing a period would end the selection at the end of a sentence, typing two periods would end at the second sentence etc.

      Typing any other character would accomplish the same thing. Why hasn’t any other developer included that ability? It was so easy, so speedy, and sooooo useful!

  3. Speaking of tools, in the latest KDP Newsletter, January 2018, they mentioned Kindle Create.


    I downloaded the Mac version and fired it up. I used my clean copy of Great Expectations and it only took minutes to convert. There is a preview of different ebooks, and several template files. It makes a “kpf” that you upload to KDP, not an actual ebook.

    I haven’t uploaded to KDP so I don’t know what problems may exist. I googled for any comments or reviews of Kindle Create, but it is still too new, and most people have not looked at it.

    I have Kindle Create for Mac, version, Last Updated: 15 December 2017

    This is a standalone program, not an add-on to Word. I publish paper only because I have not been comfortable with all the many ebook creation systems that I’ve played with. I’ll wait a few months to let people use it regularly, then I may actually start publishing ebooks as well.

    Give a yell if anyone has used the software.

    • An interesting note:

      They have videos showing the process, and in working on Great Expectations, the program creates an electronic Table of Contents, but does not force having a page of TOC.

      Remember about a year ago, there was the Kindle conflict where they demanded that you have an actual TOC page at the front of the ebook. They blocked many ebooks that did not have one. Now, with their own video example of Pride and Prejudice, there is no demand for a TOC in the front.

  4. Whatever works best for the writer in question I’d say.

    “Because Scrivener makes it so easy to slice up and reorganize pieces of a document, it profoundly changes the process of writing and revision, and the balance between them.”

    And as I’m still writing in Word (2000), I wonder if the OP ever discovered that in Word they could highlight a section, right click and hit ‘cut’ to remove that bit and then ‘paste’ it elsewhere. And then there’s always the option of opening two Word documents and moving/reorganising between them.

    (or maybe this was just a JSTOR Daily ad … 😉 )

  5. I’m a software junkie, too, and I am often paralyzed until I find the right tool for the job. I’m not sure I would be writing novels if it weren’t for Scrivener—and now I’m adding Aeon Timeline to the stable as well.

  6. I’m a long-time Scrivener user, and I can honestly say that without it I probably wouldn’t be a writer at all. But a *better* writer? Not necessarily. No tool is going to make you a better writer. Is there any proof that today’s writers are superior to those who were limited to such *primitive* tools as a quill and ink, or a fountain pen or even a plain old pencil? I’m all for software that makes writing a practical pursuit rather than an entirely frustrating one, but I have no illusions about what it contributes to quality.

    • -puts hand up-
      I /know/ I’m a better writer for using StoryBox [it’s very similar to Scrivener] because of two reasons:

      1. writing in scenes and chapters stops me from waffling in order to connect up the bits, and
      2. I can restructure scenes and whole chapters with a single click, two at the most. This is way beyond cut and paste.

      As a pantster, the ability to restructure so easily means that I’m not scared of moving great swathes of writing around if it makes the story tighter.

      I speak only for myself here, but I’ve found that large scale restructuring in Word is daunting, especially with a large novel.

      Another advantage is that I can add a brief synopsis to each scene and chapter which becomes an outline ‘on the fly’.
      Very handy for a pantster like me. 🙂

      • I love the synopsis/logline part. In fact in Scrivener I often write a short logline or epigram on the “index card” that represents each chapter. In editing I’ve learned to take a hard look at those loglines to see if anything is “happening” in them. It’s promising when the epigram is something like “In which Protagonist escapes the dungeon” as opposed to “In which Protagonist drinks tea and contemplates the meaning of life.”

        Is the tea-drinking chapter moving the plot at all? Or grinding it to a halt? Would it be better if I move Protagonist’s midlife crisis to the chapter when she’s chained up in the dungeon? Scrivener makes editing refreshingly easy.

        • YES!! Those ‘loglines’ are displayed in the navigation pane of Storybox, and I sometimes add date and time to them so I can see the sequence of events, almost at a glance.

          And you are so right about the ‘tea drinking scene’. I get flashes of scenes all the time, but they’re not always relevant to the here-and-now of the story. Being able to move them to a better location so easily is a huge boon.
          Even with Word’s navigation pane and heading styles, moving blocks of text is still difficult, and messy. In StoryBox I simply move a scene into the Notes pane of the ‘destination’ [so I don’t accidentally lose it] and then insert at my leisure. 😀

  7. I agree wholeheartedly re WordPerfect. The one they have now is a poor shadow of the good one. Sigh.

  8. I still have my old Word Perfect 5.1 manual and disks but not sure if disks are 5.25 inch or 3.5 inch. Think I should put them into my really old computer and copy to CD then put CD into my old laptop and copy to memory stick then see if Ubuntu on my new laptop can run WP. Then again, I am not sure if Ubuntu can handle a DOS program. 🙂

  9. Tools. This goes back to my days as a carpenter. It is not the tool, it is how well you learn to use it. Someone who has learned to use Scrivener well will get better results with Scrivener than someone who has only a desultory acquaintance with Word will get with Word. Comparing a skilled Scrivener user with a virtuoso Wordist is like comparing Bach and Mozart– your head will explode.

    I am a Word partisan– everything Scrivener users say is great about Scrivener, I do easily in Word. Does that mean Word is better? No. It means I know a lot about using Word.

    My suggestions: don’t switch tools if you like the tool you are using, but keep in mind that learning more about the tool you use will benefit you. If you like Word, push Word styles to the limit and keep the navigation pane open. I like setting up Word styles so I see what I expect in the published book. WYSIWYG is an old concept, but seeing the page in the same way your readers will see it is still a good concept. I write better that way. Converting to and from Manuscript Style is easy, if that becomes important for editing, etc.

    I’ll let Scrivener enthusiasts say what to focus on in Scrivener.

    • I have to use Word at the moment because I’m writing a technical manual with over 150 graphics, and StoryBox doesn’t handle graphics that well. I also teach Word so I know its ins and outs. It definitely has its uses, but I don’t think novel writing is one of them.
      If people are happy with Word then they should stick with it, but if they’re starting to hit Word’s limitations, then there are better writing tools out there.

      • As as Word partisan, I am interested in what people feel that Word does not deal with for formatting and structuring fiction. My experience is that fiction formatting is is a trivial subset of non-fiction. That just says that fictional complexity transcends document complexity.

        • I liked Word until 2013. Then the “nifty stuff” started to overwhelm functions that I liked for simplicity and ease-of-use.

          I use Vellum for formatting.

        • Dedicated writing software is as much project manager as wordprocessor, and so it takes the linear out of writing. It also allows pantsters like me to outline after the event. Most importantly, it allows me to be brutal with my editing. If scenes and whole chapters have to be relocated then so be it. The process is almost painless and encourages me to look for more ways of tightening up the storyline.
          Word approximates some of those functions with the navigation pane and the heading styles, but there are some things it simply does not have. For example:

          – it doesn’t have visual storyboarding at both the chapter and global story level. Word fudges the concept but it’s more like the navigation pane on steroids – okay if you only have XX number of scenes and chapters, hell if you write novels of 100k and more,
          – it doesn’t include a ‘Notes’ pane that’s attached to the scene. If I want to write notes to myself in Word, I either have to include them in the relevant document or, I have to run two or more documents concurrently and click between them,
          – it doesn’t allow me to create character profiles as part of the project – i.e. making them always available. Again, if I want to do that in Word, I have to create a separate document[s].

          There is also something else about Word that’s not such a good thing: Microsoft rarely takes anything away during development. Instead, it simply adds to the functionality so that there are almost always 4-5 ways of doing the same thing. This adds a level of complexity to the program that makes certain functions…tricky. And the larger the document the more unstable it can become.

          The Word specs may say it can handle documents up to 512K, but on a mid-range pc, things start sloooowing down by about 80 – 90K, especially if you try using multi-page views during editing.

          I’m not against Word, but it is a business tool that has been put to general use. It’s not a specialist program, however much it may try to be all things to all people.

          If I had the money I’d buy Adobe InDesign for layout and formatting, and use StoryBox for the writing and project management.

          Apologies for the long reply, but this post is about tools and I just don’t think Word is the best tool available to a writer.

    • If you like Word, push Word styles to the limit and keep the navigation pane open.

      The two hours I devoted to learning Word Styles was an very valuable investment. Before that, I was hammering with a screwdriver.

      • Agreed about Word Styles, Terrence.

      • My favorite Word Styles hack is a style I have created for my notes to myself. It’s indented and in a scripty bold font and a heading style. That way my notes show up in the nav pane. I put stuff like “Don’t forget the turmeric” that reminds me of a thought that I want to pick up later. When I’m done with them, or don’t want to see them, I select the style and delete, or I switch the font style to hidden and they are gone. Comments work well for that sort of thing too, but for some purposes, showing in the nav pane is helpful. I also use Excel for outlining that automatically maintains a timeline for me, but that’s another story.

        • Terrence P OBrien

          Microsoft Project is a critical path scheduling system used on large construction projects. It’s also excellent for developing and managing plots, scenes, ordering of scenes, and coordination of multiple story threads that must eventually weave together.

          Consider the story a series of actions that have multiple forward and backwards dependencies, but also have to be presented in an orderly manner to readers. It is the same thing as developing an oil field, except we have the hero escape from prison rather than having the sidebooms mobilized for the 10-inch job.

          Word files can be linked to each activity, so a scene can be an event in Project, and a click opens the Word document in another screen.

          • That is an interesting idea. Project for plotting– I will try it.

            For many years, Project was the first thing I cracked open every morning before daily engineering stand up.

            My favorite Project story is from a friend who was managing Alaskan pipeline construction. He said he quit using Project when it told him that to complete his project on time, he needed 483 welders for three days in January on the North Slope.

  10. Everyone’s mileage is going to vary. My standard recommendation is to survey, select likely looking candidates, give them a try, go with the one (or more) that works for you. It is entirely possible that what that is may change over time, as one’s writing and writing apps progress. One tool may prove sufficient, or one may need multiple tools.

    I’m currently puzzling over how authors managed multiple parallel character storylines/arcs back in the verbal or handwriting or typewriter days. Think Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In their heads? Detailed outlines/timelines scribbled on large sheets/rolls of paper? Collections of multi-colored note cards? Diagrams? There are samples of original pages of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and others outlines available on the Internet, but they don’t drill down to the level of detail and arcs-at-a-glance that I’m struggling with. I’m curious if they in turn did even more detailed sub-outlines or worked the rest out in their heads.

    • I always have three POV protagonists in a given story. Stories spring into my head that way. Maybe one day I will only have one protagonist, but it would be for a very short story and not a novel.

      I didn’t used to outline … on paper! Is this the Rowling outline you’re referring to? That’s the kind of plot outline I used to just keep in my head, and seeing Rowling’s outline actually helped me to admit I was outlining at all. Now I’m willing to write it down, especially if there’s a mystery at the heart of the story. I now cheerfully commit my outlines to a spreadsheet or to Scrivener.

      I don’t necessarily outline character arcs, but I will write down my plans for that character in a sort of “character profile.” Either in the profile or the plot outline I will jot down which particular set piece in the plot is supposed to coincide with a revelation in a character’s arc. As in, the dungeon + midlife crisis I joked about above 🙂

      Just give yourself permission to experiment, and be open minded. I did less planning when I thought outline = straitjacket. When I began to consider that outlines were a mechanism to avoid unresolved plot threads and under-developed themes, I no longer thought they were of the devil 🙂

      Anyway, I hope you find what works for you 🙂

  11. I’d first started to write using ye olden fashioned manual and electronic typewriter, but thoroughly enjoy using the computer. Never used WordPerfect but I do remember my late father shipping the stuff by the truckload down to the West Indies for schools/students to use.

    Personally, I still use two versions of word for writing: Word2003 on my trusty XP, and Word2013 for everything else on my current computer. I definitely appreciate the fact that I can keep the stuff written/editing in 2003 the same in the semi-current version of Word.

    And Yes, I’ve used Word ever since it came out in the 90’s courtesy of my current employer.

  12. For me, the biggest change is having continuous access to online references. I’ve bookmarked and keep open, variously, different thesauri, dictionaries, verb conjugators, Ngram viewers, and such. Not to mention quick access to YouTube videos for understanding how to use an Atlatl or skin a beaver (true!). And what used to take me time thumbing through my big, black Roget’s Thesaurus for one synonym now takes seconds online. Of course, I still have to restrain myself from diving into research rabbit holes in order to get back to actual writing. I guess that will never change.

    • Of course, I still have to restrain myself from diving into research rabbit holes in order to get back to actual writing.

      Well, I’m just going to stop beating myself up over that, then 🙂 I love YouTube for research because I can’t otherwise visualize how certain things work, like astrolabes or the lost-wax process. It helps me to write better descriptions.

      I’m with you on the Roget vs. online. I have my dictionary open right in front of my keyboard … but it’s buried under notepads and file folders. In the middle of writing I often find I just click my shortcuts for M-W or American Heritage dictionary, etc.

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